Rugby Union: Bright lights for Woodward amid Twickenham's gloom

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IT IS odd that people keep lamenting the superiority of the southern hemisphere countries. They have always been superior. Or, to be accurate, South Africa and New Zealand have always been so. Australia have accelerated in the last few years - though, judging by their performance on Saturday, I would not credit their semi-official status as second-best team in the world. I should put them behind South Africa, New Zealand and France as well.

Of the four home nations, England have easily the best record against the southern hemisphere elite since 1945. They have beaten not only Australia six times (a record all the other countries can match) but South Africa four times and New Zealand three times.

Three of the seven victories over the two stronger countries were won in England's most successful decade, in 1992 and 1994 against South Africa, and in 1993 against New Zealand. Despite their victory in 1953, Wales by contrast, were disappointing in their own glorious decade, losing to New Zealand in 1972 and 1978, in the latter game by one disputed point.

The British Lions won a series against Australia in 1950, 1959 1966 and 1989, against South Africa in 1974 and 1997 (with a draw in 1955) and against New Zealand in 1971.

On historical precedents and current form alike, England have a more difficult task this Saturday than they had three days ago. Even so, their record against South Africa is better than that of any of the other home countries, though one of their victories, in 1992, was gained over a team who were making their first reappearance in world rugby after their isolation.

The current difficulties faced by Clive Woodward, the England coach, could have been more oppressive. As George Formby used to sing, things might have been a great deal worse.

Matt Perry did almost everything to justify Woodward's faith in him. Jeremy Guscott is still going strong. Matt Dawson had a good game, even if his irascible disposition may get him into trouble some day.

Richard Cockerill is in a permanent state of irritation but remains a reassuring presence, in an odd sort of way. No one would describe Darren Garforth as a mobile prop in the same style as, say, Cliff Davies or Mike Coulman. But he nevertheless has the knack of turning up at the right place at the right time, as he does frequently for Leicester and as he did in helping to make Guscott's try. The experiment of turning Tim Rodber into a lock - what Graham Henry, the Welsh coach, has done with the Llanelli No 8, Chris Wyatt - was, as far as I could judge, a complete success.

Not so the back row. True, the penalty awarded against Neil Back whereby the heroic John Eales won the match was harsh, even excessive. Back should not be blamed. I should also prefer him over Richard Hill. As someone once said: to govern is to choose. This is what Woodward is reluctant to do.

His predecessor, Jack Rowell, picked a back row of three No 8s resembling a trio of camels, with Ben Clarke at No 7. Woodward picks a back row of three No 7s, for Lawrence Dallaglio is more than fast enough for the position and has, indeed, occupied it with distinction both in club matches for Wasps and on other occasions. He is also at home at Nos 6 and 8. But what does not work is for him to do a quick-change act with Hill, Dallaglio an attacking No 8 but a defending No 6. I do not know what it does to the enemy, but it certainly confuses everyone else.

Tony Underwood has the highest strike rate of any current England wing, but did not seem completely at home at Twickenham. He was, moreover, out- paced by Joe Roff. Austin Healey is a lively character, a bit of a card - something of a walking provocation himself, too - but if Woodward has to put a club scrum-half on the England wing, it does not say much for English wings.

I leave his latest difficulty till last: England's perennial problem position before and after the reign of Rob Andrew - outside-half. Mike Catt has been getting a lot of stick for missing that conversion. Everyone seems to have forgotten that Paul Grayson missed not two but three points from a comparatively simple penalty in the first quarter, before he was injured.

Grayson is rugby's Mr John Citizen, who will presumably be restored. Catt is now a rugby schizophrenic, moving in minutes from the sublime, as in some of his kicking, to the gorblimey, as in his perfectly judged pass to the touch judge. Many years ago, at school, I knew a wing who did precisely that. But he was short sighted and there were no contact lenses in those days. I should give Simon Mannix a go.